Cross the Darien with a vehicle

What options do you have with your motorcycle/bike/car?



Written by Dave Thompson, thompson@pdnt.com , May 1998.



Editor note: Please note this information is now out of date.



The Darien Gap is basically a piece of jungle between Panama and Colombia. Your options are: fly it (but being an interpred traveler you don't want to do that), take a boat (you can sail from Panama to Colombia), or try crossing the Darien overland.



Let me state something clearly here before we start: I do not recommend crossing the Darien overland. With the guerilla situation getting worse every day, you'd be pretty stupid to try it. So here's a report from a guy who actually did all this.



Since the Darien gap is probably the most difficult part of travelling the Americas, I wrote this up for other travellers....



Between Panama and Colombia, the Darien gap is a stretch of about 80 miles where there is no road. To cross it involves a sharp machete, a strong arm, good mosquito repellent, malaria prophylactic, food, and lots of patience. Also, timing must be in the dry season. I've only heard of three successful vehicle crossings. All of whom have written books about their many week ordeal.



Since the early '90s, crossing the Darien on foot is considered by most locals as dangerous since it has recently become a channel for drug smugglers from Colombia. For most normal people, including those only slightly abnormal, this leaves three options. Fly, take a boat, or turn around.



Flying across the Darien





Flying is certainly the easiest. It's an option for motorcyclists, but not for cars or trucks which must take a boat. There are several air cargo freighters that will ship a motorcycle. In both Bogota and Panama city, the best place to research this yourself in Bogota is at the main airport, or in Panama City at the old airport now called the cargo airport. Of the air cargo freighter that would transport a motorcycle to Bogota, I went with Girag Air Cargo and found procedures to be easy and straight forward. I heard good things about Servi Carga from two independent sources. Girag Air Cargo (Cargo Three, Inc.) Phone in city: 26-5775, 26-3173, 26-5477, Fax 26-5477 Phone at Tocumen: 238-4326, 238-4289, 238-4397, 238-4091, Fax 238-4417 In Bogota: 571-414-7010,571-414-7011,571-414-7012 413-5349, 413-5358, 413-5093, 413-5087, Fax: 413-5104, E-mail: adolfog@colomsat.net.co



Cost was $250 cash or TC per motorcycle In Bogota they are located at the main airport. In Panama City, they are located at the cargo airport (old Tocumen airport) Servi Carga. phone: 223-1144, 238-4165, 238-4162, 238-4286, 238-4250 cost is $250 per motorcycle + $33 handling. Pacific Airlines. located at the old cargo Tocumen airport. They quoted me $500 cash per motorcycle.



Continental Airlines will ship a motorcycle to Ecuador, either Guayaquil or Quito. However motorcycle must be delivered crated. free of oil, gas, battery and tire pressure. Guess of price by clerk was $400 per motorcycle.



We dropped our motorcycles off in the afternoon at Girag dock at the old airport in Panama city, We drained the gas tank and left. It showed up the next day in the Girag warehouse near the Bogota airport just as we had left them. See Customs at the bottom...



In Colombia, and maybe also in Panama, gas station sell plastic gas bags for carrying gas. For approximately, $.50 one can buy a plastic bag at Texaco for carrying up to two gallons of gas, which you'll likely need on arrival with a dry tank. There is a gas station less than 1km from the airport, so not much gas is needed. For you, not your vehicle, there are several flights from Panama to Bogota per day on Copa, Avianca and Aces.



We flew on Aces and would recommend it. Flight time is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes and all seats are business class at economy prices. Cost was $168 for all the airlines above mentioned, one way. No problem booking flight at the last minute. WGS84 GPS coordinates for Panama. Tocumen Airport N9d04.006, W79d23.291 Cargo Airport N9d05.232, W79d22.314



By Sea around the Darien Gap





The Crucero express is a ferry service that operated for 6-18 months depending on who one talks to. However, it has stopped running almost 2 years ago. Rumor has it that the boat now runs from Cancun to Miami. There are no current plans for a replacement ferry service.



There are a number of options of how to cross by boat, but no yet well established method, and so all options require a lot of foot work. I would recommend allowing 1-2 weeks to arrange, plus 3-4 days in crossing.



However, I've heard costs as low as $200* for motorcycle and passenger, (BIG asterisk here... see below) One way to cross is by container ship. One rents a 10x20x10 foot container which is large enough for two cars/trucks, or four motorcycles. These typically go for $1000 plus $100 to load, and $100 to unload for a total of $1200. Great if you can pair up vehicles with someone else.



The alternative to renting a container would be to find a ship that takes open cargo. These are more difficult to find. This type of travel is arranged through a port agency, who acts as cargo schedulers for a couple of boats. Port agencies are usually centrally located, so one can walk around to the various ones, and ask about various boats.



Most boats in Panama load in Colon, and so I'm told it's best to go there despite the reputation of the city. My information was gathered in Panama City. In Panama city, there are several port agencies grouped together at WGS84 coordinates N8d57.534, W79d33.647. OTC is a port agent at these coordinates. OTC themselves only had a 20 foot container as their smallest which was $950 to Cartagena plus $100 handling. Perfect if I had a Winebego.



Some other contacts: Gemini Shipping Co. Tel: 441-6269, 441-6959. They would except open cargo cars or motorcycle. However they sailed every 1-2 weeks. Fast Cargo Inc. Tel: 263-2008, 263-7826, 264-5792, 441-7037, Fax: 269-8447, They handle arrangements by air or boat. There are quite a few small boats that cross from Panama to Colombia, and will take a open cargo such as a motorcycle and their passengers.



This is by far the best way to go if one is interested in gathering adventure stories to be told afterwards. Of the three travellers I met who travelled on one of these smaller boats... One was on a coconut boat where their motorcycle sat in a pile of coconuts for 3.5 days.



When they arrived at night, the canoes came from shore, and all of the smuggled merchandise such as refrigerators, TVs, etc were unloaded in the dark from hidden places on the boat. The next morning when only the coconuts and motorcycle remained, the motorcycle was off loaded into a canoe for an additional $20. They were put ashore on a sand beach far from any road. Later when they arrived at customs, they were told that they had had an illegal entry, and would have to go back the way they came and come in legally.



This being impossible, they ended up driving the rest of the way through Colombia without proper documents. Fortunately they were not stopped by a police check. The total cost for them was $220. It was not a pleasant experience, however when they tell it, it makes a great story.



A British couple we met had a similar experience for $250. However their boat was smuggling in arms and ammunition likely for one of the two Colombian guerrilla factions. Of course, they didn't know this when they embarked. We met a swiss motorcycle traveller who booked passage on the boat named "Alejandra" sailed by captain Eduardo Barrios sailing from Puerto Coco Solo in Venezuela to Colon, Panama. He paid $200 for the three day passage of himself and his motorcycle. However, he slept on the floor in a cramp area shared by others, and managed to lose all of his riding gear during the voyage.



Customs





While arrival by land in Colombia is straight forward and easy, arrival by boat or air involves a lot of paperwork. 2-5 days by air or boat has been my personal experience and experience from talking with other travellers.



Our paper work began on a Thursday night, and we were done by Tuesday morning. No work was done Saturday afternoon or Sunday.



However, we had two problems arise that lengthened our paperwork by about a day and a half. One was that the vehicle identification number on one of our bikes is a sticker that is no longer legible. Due to some quick thinking and trickery by our hired custom agent we were able to get this by the customs officer. The other problem we had was that in Panama, the customs officer had written the same air bill number for one of our motorcycles into both of our passports.



This discrepancy took a lot of foot and paper work to remedy in Colombia. The customs officers in Bogota are very strict, officious and by the book. They are reluctant to take responsibility for saying that any discrepancy is o.k. A bribe at this custom office will likely get one thrown in jail, so I have been warned, and such is the general feel of the clerks.



Solutions to problems we encountered: I went to an engraver, and had a little aluminum plate with the vehicle identification numbers engraved on it which I then epoxied to the frame. This number identically matched that of my paperwork, and replaced the factory sticker that was now no longer legible. Regarding the incorrect air bill number in my passport. Fixing this personally with a pen, I was warned would get me thrown in jail. Colombian officials said, "no problem, just go back to Panama and get it fixed". With two notes from the shippers, and approval from the top customs officer, the clerks were able to overlook this discrepancy.



It is necessary to hire a custom agent.





The custom agent works for you, not the government, and is hired to get you through Colombian customs. They do the leg work, and type of the 80+ question form. A typical fee might be $80 per motorcycle to possibly $75 per day, and is well worth it. We heard of two Israelis who didn't hire an agent, and it took them 2.5 weeks of agony to get their vehicles through customs.



Finding a custom agent may not be easy.



Customs officers who work for the government are not allowed to help you locate a customs agent since this would be potentially considered favoritism, and possibly a loss of their job.



We were secretly directed to Cesar, a customs agent who hangs out in the cargo warehouse. He has been doing this paper work for 15 years. He's short, overweight, and wears street clothes and can likely be found by asking around the cargo warehouses just outside the Bogota airport entrance. He has a crew of four others that can get a motorcycle through in a little over a day. With all of your paperwork in order, and lots of patience, Colombian customs is only a little inconvenient :-)



Note from the editor: this article describes the past situation. And let me just repeat we do not recommend crossing the darien overland.

Posted on May 11, 1998


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